Guitarist Tom Verlaine passed away earlier today. I’m in no position to do a survey of his life and career–there are plenty of others who can and will do that task justice. Still, Verlaine’s magnum opus is definitely part of the music of my life, so I’ll take time to briefly describe how that came to be.
The August 27, 1987 issue of Rolling Stone was part of the magazine’s celebration of its twentieth anniversary, its attempt to identify the 100 Best Rock Albums of its lifetime. It’s not a shock to hear I’ve always been attracted to that sort of thing, and as you might imagine, I spent quite a few hours poring over their rankings after a copy arrived at the apartment I was sharing with John and Jim. Gratified when I saw an LP from my collection mentioned, mystified frequently when a title was unfamiliar. By this point I probably knew of the album at #38, sandwiched between Innervisions and Purple Rain, but had never heard anything off it.
(Noel Coppage’s brief, color-me-very-unimpressed blurb in Dad’s copy of the May 1977 issue of Stereo Reviewmust have passed under my eyes a decade earlier without registering.)
My interest was piqued enough at the time to file Marquee Moon under “must seek out someday” in my brain; it would be well over a decade, though, before anything of the sort happened. As it turns out, my father was responsible for getting it into my hands.
I’ve noted before that Dad was a collector of various things, music (both rock and classical) being one of his primary avenues of expression. When he latched onto CDs in the 90s, he no doubt took advice from any number of articles identifying Essential Disks Everyone Should Own (TM), which is how I expect that a copy of Marquee Moon ended up in a box underneath the bed in my folks’ townhouse basement bedroom. When I came across it on a weekend visit around 2003 or so, he gladly allowed me to take it home.
I’d guess that Dad never played it, but I didn’t waste time. My recollection is that I slipped it into the CD player in our kitchen one Sunday morning soon afterward. I was immediately captivated by the searing riffs on the opening track.
The album turned out to be a treat from start to finish and became a regular listen over the ensuing years; it’s near the top of my list of disks to recommend to friends who don’t know it. While I doubt I would have appreciated MM that much when it was released in 1977, I do regret not checking it out immediately after the RS write-up in 1987.
I’m also regretting today that I haven’t yet sought out Mr. Verlaine’s other output. That will likely take place in the coming days, but tonight it’ll be “See No Evil,” “Venus,” “Friction,” and the rest from MM. I hope he rests in peace.
A baker’s half-dozen of moments from an adolescence and early adulthood of fandom for Olivia Newton-John:
“Let Me Be There” It’s late 1973 or early 1974 when I first hear her voice. Like most of my musical discoveries in those days, this gift arrives while riding with the rest of my family in my father’s black 1971 LTD. (It’s nighttime, as it is so often in those memories.) The deep bass background vocals helped the song stand out, but I’m certain I paid enough attention that I knew her name going forward.
Looking back now, I’m a little surprised that it took just a little over a year for Olivia to go from here to two #1 singles–it felt longer than that at the time.
“Come On Over” ON-J’s first wave of popularity had already crested by April 1976, to the point where her singles didn’t automatically receive airplay on WSAI, Cincinnati’s AM Top 40 station. This twelve-year-old had recently disovered AT40, however, so I got to learn about (and greatly enjoy) this Barry Gibb-penned tune anyway. It’s among the first of many songs from the second half of the 70s I’ll know only because of listening to Casey.
“Hopelessly Devoted to You” Around the time that Grease was set to make a splash (mid-May 1978), Olivia hosted a special on ABC. While I doubt I actually watched the show, I was completely captivated by the photo appearing in the TV Guide Close Up that talked it up.
I may as well confess–I clipped this out of our TV Guide back then (remember, I was 14). I spent a little time yesterday rummaging through where I thought it’d be if I still had it but came up empty. This image, courtesy of imdb.com, will have to do.
I didn’t see Grease until a Sunday afternoon toward the end of August (my freshman year of HS began the next day). By that time, “You’re the One That I Want” had already come and gone from the charts, while “Summer Nights” and “Hopeless Devoted to You” were in full ascent. (Even before I saw the movie, I accurately sensed where each of the three appeared in it.)
Olivia was in the process of a remarkable career pivot, one whose success was surpassed at the time only by that of the Bee Gees. In the coming months, I would dig on both of the hit singles from Totally Hot; the wink in the line “Where did my innocence go?” from “A Little More Love” did not escape my notice.
“Magic” Perhaps surprisingly, this is the first Olivia Newton-John 45 I ever purchased. (I did eventually buy “Sam,” several years after it was a hit.) All the singles from Xanadu were huge hits with me. The title song and “Suddenly” both topped the personal Top 50 charts I was maintaining at the time, but “Magic” dwarfed those feats, spending four weeks at #1, eleven weeks in the Top 3; I rated it as my second favorite song of the year. Yes, I saw the movie at the time–I have no regrets.
“Twist of Fate” Easily my favorite song of hers post-Xanadu. “Physical” was fine though I didn’t really understand its ten-week run at #1 on the Hot 100, while “Heart Attack,” charting just as I started college, held no appeal at all. I think it’s the drive of the beat, the urgency in the chorus, that make “Twist of Fate” stand out. Yes, I saw Two of a Kind at the time–there may be some regrets over that choice.
“Soul Kiss” Sexy Liv tries for one more big hit but comes up empty. When James and I put together a radio show documenting highs and lows of the music of 1985, I crowned this “Most Boring Song of the Year.” (Another friend thought that the second word of the title should have been replaced with a different four-letter word.) I’ll admit it took me decades to acquire any feel for what was going on here.
“The Rumour” What goes around, comes around. Olivia was approaching forty, so she went back to her AC roots, though without the country inflections. I was well into my grad school years and learned about “The Rumour” via VH-1 and one of the less rock-oriented stations in Champaign-Urbana. I was aware of Elton John’s contributions at the time, but you wouldn’t have to be told to suss it out.
For a decent while, Olivia Newton-John absolutely was one of my favorites; as you can imagine, much of her music is interwoven with the fabric of my formative years. I applaud both her talent and her courage. She was a treasure.
While I can’t know how folks really felt about Nanci Griffith, based on the portion of her career to which I was paying close attention, she sure seemed to have a lot of good friends and command the respect of folks in the business. The list of guest musicians on her 1994 album Flyer is amazing: Emmylou Harris, the Indigo Girls, members of the Chieftains, U2, and the BoDeans, Mark Knopfler, Adam Duritz…on and on it goes. She certainly had good taste, too: the songwriters whose work she chose to cover on her Grammy-winning Other Voices, Other Rooms include Dylan, Prine, Lightfoot, Woody Guthrie, Tom Paxton, Townes van Zandt, Janis Ian, Kate Wolf, and Jerry Jeff Walker.
I’m probably not alone in first learning of Griffith in 1989, when VH-1 frequently played “It’s a Hard Life Wherever You Go.” I soon hit up the public libraries in Urbana and Champaign for Storms and a few of her earlier albums; my officemate Paul ripped them on cassette for me. I was charmed by her unique voice, and for a while (Storms through Flyer) I made sure to purchase new Griffith material when it came out. She was definitely a favorite during the first half of the 90s.
In the midst of my grief on Friday afternoon after saying goodbye to our family dog, news came over the wire about Griffith’s death. She never had that big hit song, but my social media feeds tell me how much her music meant to a lot of people. My two favorite albums of hers are Storms and Other Voices, Other Rooms, so I’ll toss out a couple of songs from each for your potential listening pleasure.
Nanci’s final album was released in 2012, and it seems she’d kept a low profile in recent years. I do hope she understood how much her songs, her work, was appreciated. I know I’ll be getting those old cassettes out this week.
He came into our lives in August, he left us in August.
Buddy was a gentle soul, a life changer. In the very early days of the blog, I recounted how we met him, but in brief: in 2013, one of our friends who worked with the local Humane Society brought some animals to a back-to-school function at our church. Twelve-year-old Ben, who’d grown up petrified of dogs, immediately bonded with this 60 lb. collie mix, and just over a week later, Buddy began his journey with us.
He was of unknown age when he moved in—probably between five and eight. Buddy wasn’t a cuddler or a lap dog; while some of that no doubt was nature, I always had a sense that in his earlier life he’d been disciplined not to get up on things. (I can’t complain at all that he didn’t want to climb into bed with us.) He needed a little time to get used to the new circumstance of his life—and vice versa—and a little training to learn not to bark at other dogs on walks. It wasn’t long before everyone adjusted, though, and he became an integral part of the family.
A couple years in, Buddy began losing fur and had trouble keeping steady. It took quite a while for the vet to determine that he had an atypical presentation of Addison’s disease (I guess his adrenal glands had atrophied, but the standard blood work couldn’t determine it). It was simple to fix—just a small, daily dose of prednisone—but until that determination, Martha and I had become more afraid as the weeks passed that we might lose him.
After that, life with Buddy went smoothly for a few years. He got in the habit of taking three walks each day—Martha would go on a long one with him most mornings, then there’d be one right before dinner, and another afterward. Martha particularly enjoyed the morning and evening walks, as she got to know neighbors (and the neighborhood) better; a dog makes a good starting point for conversation. As he aged, however, the walks first dropped down to twice a day, and eventually only the evening one remained.
The pandemic meant all three of us got to spend much more time at home with our dog, but that coincided with the beginnings of a slow but steady decline in Buddy’s mobility. The last walk in the neighborhood came this past April. Over the last year it’s been clear that dementia was setting in as well.
Here are a few favorite memories we have of Buddy: –Trips to the dog park at Masterson Station Park in Lexington. It was great to give Buddy opportunities to run freely. He wasn’t much of a fetcher, but when other owners would throw something, he’d chase along with the dog going after it, barking all the way. He also tended to try to police matters when other pooches got into it with one another; –Playing ‘sock’ in the back yard or basement. We did get Buddy to learn to go after a sock filled with a rubber ball here at the house. He was generally not very graceful—often when he would excitedly go after it, his front legs would splay out in odd directions. He regularly dropped the sock about halfway back, yet still expected the treat upon return; –His energy when we returned home and let him out of the crate in the basement. Buddy could usually hear when we were back and would be standing in the crate by the time one of us got downstairs. He’d then bound up the stairs to the kitchen and drink deeply from his water bowl. –Slinking into our walk-in closet during thunderstorms. Like so many dogs, Buddy hated thunder. Somehow he decided that closet was a safe place. –Howling at sirens. I know the noise bothered him, but his mournful “A-roooooooo” became a part of the sonic landscape; –Running home at the end of walks. We’d frequently let him off the leash near the top of our cul-de-sac, and he’d half-lope/half-dash toward our driveway. When Ben went along with us, they’d race. When our neighbor Mary was out, Buddy might peel off and head over to her instead, wiggling his butt furiously, ears down in a submissive manner and waiting for a head rub.
Over the last eighteen months or so, we’ve been missing how Buddy was; how he has been lately has been a challenge for everyone, Buddy included. Things finally came to a head around 3am Thursday morning. After dealing with the latest mess, Martha, Ben and I finally talked freely about stuff we’d been hinting at for the last 2-3 months. We worried that we were being selfish for considering letting Buddy go, yet we could also see that he wasn’t enjoying much about his life.
This morning, after a meal of boiled chicken breast, we took him to the vet one last time. On his most recent trips there, he’s been quite agitated, panting the entire way, pooping on the blanket in the car en route, pacing nervously once we got there. We had reason to be concerned that he’d be panic-stricken in his final moments.
Instead, he was surprisingly calm. No panting, no obvious display of nerves on the trip. (He did still poop in the car a little, I guess for old times’ sake.) We walked him into their euthanasia room, and he pretty easily laid still on his blanket. I guess he was ready to go; maybe he’d been ready well before we were.
Even toward the end, it may have been hard to tell from a distance about his issues. His coat was still in fine shape overall, and there were passing moments—even yesterday—when the old Buddy spark of life showed in his eyes. I took the picture at the top just this past Monday. The right-ear-up-left-ear-slightly floppy is (yes, was) a standard-issue Buddy pose.
This coming Tuesday marks the eight-year anniversary of Buddy entering and transforming Ben’s life. I don’t know—maybe it’ll be easier to observe that, celebrate it, knowing that he’s not suffering any more. I guess we’ll see.
There have been a few times these last few months when I’ve wanted to write but just haven’t found the necessary motivation. Now that the school year is over, I’m hopeful that my muse will return, at least partially. In an attempt to clear the decks, here are abbreviated versions of three posts that have been tossing around my head for a while. The month and title I intended for each are included; only on the third one had I made some meaningful progress earlier. You might detect a recurring theme.
February: I’ll Be Your Sister If You’ll Be My Brother
For my 27th birthday in 1991, Greg and Katie gave me a guinea pig. I’d been hanging out in their apartment regularly for about a year by this point (unrelated but almost interesting fact: their landlord was Alison Krauss’s father), and Pig—their guinea pig—had caught my attention from the get-go. This was the year I had an apartment to myself, so I guess they figured I could stand the company.
She was adorable, with a cute crest of white fur on the top of her head spraying out in all directions. As I hustled her and her carrier into the back seat of my car, I looked down and told her, “It’s just you and me now.” That was approximately the title of a song from Kirsty MacColl’s Kite, and so my new, nervous companion was immediately christened Kirsty.
Guinea pigs frequently don’t live all that long; I had Kirsty for just over four years, a little more than half of which was after I’d moved back to KY. On a Friday in March of 1995, I came home from work to find her lying awkwardly toward the front of her cage. She was still alive, but something catastrophic—likely a stroke—had clearly happened. Alarmed, I opened the door, she (as was typical) tried to scramble away from me, I picked her up, and then held her as she died. (Guinea pigs aren’t loving pets, but I’ve always wondered if she’d somehow purposely held on until I returned.) I’d been dating Martha for only a few weeks at this point; I don’t think we’d made plans to get together that night, but I soon called her, and she offered what comfort she could over the phone. I wrapped Kirsty up, placed her in a shoebox, and buried her at the end of my driveway (there was no garage at that house). I wasn’t without a pet for long, though, as a stray cat and her kittens entered my life that summer.
March: There’ll Be (More Than) One Child Born
Chris Leverenz, a retired colleague, passed away at the end of February. While we didn’t socialize together outside of work, over the years we became good friends and confidants. She was my department chair from 1999-2010; many was the time I’d wander down to her office toward the end of the day to seek advice on how to handle some issue that’d arisen in one of my classes. We traveled together to several national conferences, usually when our department was hiring—driving to New Orleans in 2006 and DC in 2009, flying to San Francisco in 2010 and Boston in 2012. Some of our best conversations occurred on those trips. I miss her terribly.
Chris retired in 2017, not long after she discovered that the breast cancer she’d suffered more than a decade earlier (and thought she’d beaten) had returned and gone metastatic. We held a reception for her one Friday afternoon that April; I coordinated with the Alumni Office to get invitations out to alums, particularly those who’d majored in math, computer science, or elementary education, the main points of contact with students over her 35 years of service. It was a glorious event, one of the very best, most memorable occasions in my time at Georgetown.
The day Chris died, I learned that a good friend from church had become a grandmother again just the day before. Not long after, that line from Laura Nyro’s “And When I Die” popped into my head. The theology in the song didn’t match Chris’s remotely, but the thought of others carrying on one’s work has long been a powerful one for me. Touching, heartfelt tributes were many on Georgetown’s Alumni Facebook page after the news broke. It was abundantly clear from them (as it was in the appreciative notes I’d gotten via email four years earlier from alums who weren’t able to attend the retirement reception) that Chris had left a rich legacy, especially in elementary, middle, and high school classrooms scattered across Kentucky.
But there’s one other thing. Earlier in the day of her passing (a Thursday), a tenure-track offer went out to the first-choice candidate for a math position in our department—Chris’s position, one that we’d largely bridged in the intervening four years with a visitor. That offer was accepted on Friday afternoon.
April: American Top 40 PastBlast, 4/24/76: Henry Gross, “Shannon”
Our dog Buddy has really slowed down over the last year. His hind legs have gotten steadily weaker, so much so that negotiating stairs has become almost impossible. Falls are increasingly frequent, and he can’t always get himself up after he’s been lying down for a while. In recent months, walks around our neighborhood have gotten shorter and shorter; he’s now pretty much limited to our yard. There are signs of doggie dementia or some neurological disorder—he’ll sometimes wander around in a restless, almost manic state, unable to settle, and when he’s not sacked out from exhaustion, he doesn’t seem to know what to do with himself. His appetite is still strong, though he occasionally changes his mind abruptly about what he’s willing to eat.
When I was 8 or 9, my sister and I begged for a dog. Frisky came into our lives one summer (Amy thinks it was 1973, but I still wonder if it was ’74).
She was a beagle mix, about a year old. At first, we kept her outside, chained overnight to a tree with a doghouse to shelter her as needed. (She was often loose during the day, which occasionally led to trouble, including once digging up a portion of our next-door neighbor’s garden.) Eventually, she moved indoors, but Dad wasn’t about to let her have the run of the house. So, she lived in our basement, confined to the larger, unfinished half. Without the opportunity to run up and down the street as in her younger days, Frisky gained a lot of weight. I’m saddened and rather ashamed looking back now at how little attention I gave her through my high school years—she plays virtually no role in my memories from that time. My mother wound up being the one who mostly took care of her.
When my parents moved to Florence in September of 1983, Frisky was relegated to the garage. I was living my best life as a sophomore in college then, and my sister had just left the nest herself. It may be a mercy that Frisky soon developed kidney issues serious enough to warrant putting her down. I was certainly sad when Mom and Dad told me about her demise, but it took time to realize how much I’d ignored her, how miserable I suspect she was.
The #18 song on 4/24/76 was “Shannon,” a song Henry Gross wrote about Carl Wilson’s then-recently deceased Irish Setter; it’d been killed after being hit by a car (that story had been relayed by Casey on the previous week’s show—by coincidence, Gross also had an Irish Setter named Shannon). The song climbed as high as #6, which is where it was the week I began my charting odyssey. It’s one of many tunes that transports me back to the spring I fell in love with AT40.
On the 9/14/85 show, Walt in Cincinnati wrote in with a Long Distance Dedication request for his two daughters, who were struggling over the recent loss of their dog Snuggles. Of course, Walt asked Casey to play “Shannon.” It would be a couple of years before news (as well as audio evidence) leaked about the profanity-laced tirade Kasem went on the first time he tried to read Walt’s letter—he was most unhappy having to transition to it from the bouncy Pointer Sisters’ song “Dare Me.” Casey makes it sound like this wasn’t the first time his staff had scripted the show in such a fashion. It’s out there on YouTube for the curious.
We don’t know how old Buddy is. Come August, we’ll have had him for eight years, and he was at least five or six when he arrived on our scene. There are lots of things he used to do that I miss: rolling over on his back for tummy rubs, playing ‘sock’ in the basement or backyard (he’d chase and semi-retrieve it for a treat), howling when sirens rang out while he was laying on the deck (his hearing is fairly shot now). He’s never been one to cuddle, but after a few years with us, we gained enough trust from him that he would climb the stairs in the middle of the night to lay on the floor in our bedroom—that happens no more, either.
We know the day is coming when he won’t be able to support himself well enough to get up, even with help, or walk around on his own. Until then, he’s getting special add-ins with his meals, extra treats on occasion, and lots of patience and love.
While this post’s title might well apply to life over the last year in various and sundry ways, I’ll forego any complaints today and simply spin a beloved track co-written and sung by the recently-deceased heartland rocker/disk jockey/Cleveland-area legend Michael Stanley. “Falling in Love Again” was a single released from 1981’s North Coast, and fell between MSB’s two Top 40 hits, “He Can’t Love You” and “My Town,” peaking at #64 in the early weeks of my senior year of high school. I like to regale/bore you with tales of how I first encountered songs, but I honestly don’t know about this one–it doesn’t feel like something of that era to me. I did buy the 45 a few years later and stuck it on a tape soon after.
I know our narrator’s focused on picking up a woman he just met in a bar, but man, does this song sound good. Wishing peace to Mr. Stanley’s family.
It completely sucks that John Prine has died. I’ve not been enough of a die-hard fan across the years to have earned the right to compose a tribute, but I’m writing one anyway.
Most of my interest in Prine’s work came in the first half of the 90s, starting soon after Jay and Michelle moved to Champaign-Urbana from North Carolina. Jay, like me, was studying math, Michelle educational psychology. He was also as interested in bridge as I was; an introduction to my card-playing circle followed. Jay also knew of my appetite for music, and in the summer of 1991 he loaned me a dubbed cassette of Bruised Orange.
That October, my college roommate James got married to Amy; I was part of the wedding party. The rehearsal dinner took place on a boat that gave tours up and down the Kentucky River, not far from where James grew up (his father had worked there after he retired). James and Amy had hired some musicians to play and sing for us that evening, a guitarist and fiddler, if I’m recalling correctly. My ears definitely perked up when I heard them start on Bruised Orange‘s lead track, “Fish and Whistle.” Just a little odd when a decade-plus-old song enters into your life from a couple different directions almost at once.
I was fortunate to have seen Prine in concert once, in Louisville in August of 1993. While I don’t remember any specifics of the show, my sense now is that his stage presence was exactly what you’d expect from listening to his albums. I picked up the compilation Great Days right around that time, too. I’ve given both of its disks a listen in the last week; I imagine I’ll be doing that again (and maybe again) in the coming days.
It’s a mighty loss. Thanks so much for the music, Mr. Prine–rest in peace, and I hope you know what a treasure you were.
By early May of 1992, I’d been actively seeking employment for several months. I was less than two months from defending my dissertation, but prospects for employment in academia come fall were not promising. I’d sent out dozens of applications, and the results to date had been meager: in January, I’d had a few face-to-face chats at the national math meetings in Baltimore that ultimately led nowhere, while in February I’d bombed my only on-site interview, at a regional state university in Indiana. I was already contemplating remaining at Illinois—I thought I had a pretty good shot at getting assistantship support for one more year. Maybe I could make progress on extending results from my doctoral work, too.
At that relatively late moment in the hiring cycle, two glimmers of hope appeared. First, I snagged another interview, this time at a liberal arts college in the northern half of the Hoosier State. And I’d recently sent my materials off for an opening in Kentucky—a tenure-track position at Georgetown College, just a little north of my old stomping grounds in Lexington and only about an hour away from my parents. It was probably the last viable opening for 92-93 to hit the desk of my Director of Graduate Studies.
After final exams ended, I headed home to be with my folks for a few days, and as usual, I snuck in an overnight visit to Lexington to see James. On the way back to Florence, I made an impulsive decision to swing by Georgetown’s campus, just to remind myself of its layout (I’d been there at least a couple of times during college to see my sister’s basketball team face GC) and figure out where the math department was located.
The three-story George Matt Asher Jr. Science Center sits at the right base of the circle that leads up to Giddings Hall, the administration building. It didn’t take long to determine the Mathematics, Physics, and Computer Science (MPC) Department resided on the middle floor of Asher. Since graduation had already taken place, the floor was very quiet, except for one man doing some year-end clean-up in a physics lab. After introducing myself, I explained my reason for being there. He showed me around a little, not put out in the least by the interruption of his work. He then offered to take me to Giddings to meet the Academic Dean; I wasn’t sure how to say no. After a brief conversation with said Dean, I took my leave of campus, thanking Dr. Bart Dickinson, the quietly enthusiastic physicist, for his time, and wondering if I’d see him again.
Well, yeah. The interview in Indiana went sorta okay at best—the chair there told me they might offer me a one-year visiting position. Not very long after, though, Georgetown called, asking for an interview on the first of June. I still hadn’t figured out how to give a good interview, but the people in the department were uniformly nice, and somehow I soon found myself in possession of a tenure-track job offer. Bart became my first department chair.
I lived in an apartment in Lexington for my first three semesters at GC, but in December of 1993, I took the plunge into home ownership, a small three-bedroom new build about three miles north of campus. I learned early on that Bart and I shared a denominational background, of which he reminded me occasionally with invitations to attend First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). I was slowly working myself back into church-going after several years away, and as 1994 progressed, I found myself in the pews of FCC on Sunday mornings more and more often. Bart sang tenor in the choir, and began checking to see if I would be interested in joining. I’d never been a member of a choral group, but over the years I had learned enough to do decently well with the bass part of many a hymn.
It was on a warmer-than-average Wednesday evening in January 1995, not long after the start of the spring semester, that I decided to give choir practice a try. Bart might have been the only person there I knew, but everyone was super welcoming (several of the folks I met that night are still around and will be singing alongside me tomorrow morning). I was placed in between two of the other three basses on the back row. As rehearsal progressed, I couldn’t help but notice a woman in the row in front of me occasionally stealing glances my way. Of course, I noticed her, too: an attractive redhead, one of a very few people in the room around my age (At 30, I was definitely on the younger side).
I did know her name, and who she was. I’d recently become newsletter editor of our state math organization. One of my duties the previous fall had been to gather news from campuses across Kentucky. Martha Lutz was my contact on the math faculty at nearby Midway College, and she’d written back with an item or two for me to include in the fall issue. Around the same time, she served as Worship Leader one Sunday and had her name in the bulletin; I put two and two together, so to speak.
Twenty-five years ago tonight, when rehearsal ended, Martha and I said our first hellos to one another. (Okay, possibly not quite the first.) We wandered out to the parking lot and talked for a decent while beside our cars. The interaction felt comfortable, natural; it was immediately clear how kind, how smart she was, and that she was someone I’d be happy to get to know better. I didn’t sing with the choir on Sunday, but returned for practice the next Wednesday and began joining in on Sundays thereafter. On the third Saturday after meeting, we had our first date. In less than eighteen months, Martha and I were married in that church.
Bart’s plan had worked brilliantly.
It took me a good while to realize we’d been set up. Martha had been a member of the FCC choir for a few years by the time of our meeting. She did eventually mention that Bart had been telling her about “this nice young, new mathematician” in his department, but of course he hadn’t let on to either of us his ulterior motives in trying to lure me to practice. While Martha and I would have eventually crossed paths without the nudge from Bart, you never know if the outcome would have been the same. Over the last few years, Bart’s children have told us it was his only effort at matchmaking, and also among his proudest achievements.
Over the years Bart and I had various points of connection. For a while in the latter part of the 90s, he and I co-taught a Sunday School class for college students at FCC. It rarely attracted more than three or so people, but it allowed me to see up close Bart’s humble yet deep faith. When there was an office crunch on our floor of the science building in my second year on the job, Bart volunteered to move into a storage room adjacent to the main physics lab, letting me have the office he’d used since the late 60s. With the exception of the year I spent on sabbatical in New York, he and I are still the only ones to have occupied 120 Asher Science Center.
A few weeks into the Fall 2003 semester, it became apparent that Bart was suffering significant short-term memory problems, significant enough to warrant an immediate retirement. As it happened, Bart’s son Jonathan (who had been a freshman at GC my first year there) was wrapping up a PhD in chemical physics in Virginia; he wound up being the search committee’s choice to fill the hole beginning the following fall.
For the next few years, I generally saw Bart only at church. In our conversations, he was as friendly as ever, but I can’t say with certainty that he regularly knew who I was. After a while, it became too difficult for him to continue with the choir. Unfortunately, his condition kept worsening, to the point that he eventually became homebound.
It was only after Bart’s memory issues arose that it dawned on me that I’d never offered him any kind of thanks for the pivotal role he played in my good fortune. I subsequently compounded my error by deciding it was too late to try to make amends—I’ve come to see that even if he wouldn’t have remembered my words, there was no reason not to tell him, either verbally or in writing. It’s in the top tier of my life’s regrets.
In the fall of 2013 I taught an 8am on Tuesdays and Thursdays. One Thursday in early November, I was gathering my thoughts before class when Jonathan came in the room with the news that his father had passed away early that morning. I understood this was a mercy for Bart, a thoroughly fine and decent person who’d been dealt a cruel fate over his final decade. Nonetheless, I broke down immediately. I hurt for Jonathan, his mother, and his siblings, but I imagine I was also selfishly grieving for myself, over the letter never sent, the words never spoken.
The funeral was the following Sunday afternoon, in the church sanctuary. The family asked the choir to sing one of Bart’s favorite anthems, “The Majesty and Glory of Your Name” (truth be told, it’s a favorite of mine, too). It wasn’t necessarily easy, but we did it, and I believe fairly well.
There’s so much in our lives, both good and bad, that comes completely undeserved. The love of one’s life. Dementia. Close friendships. Cancer. On those occasions when it’s something on the positive side of the ledger, perhaps we should celebrate, appreciate, and maybe even find a way to reciprocate. I’m very fortunate to have been on the receiving end of kindnesses so frequently. I could stand to act like I recognize this more often.
I guess there’s no time like the present to begin, so today I’ll celebrate a quarter-century with Martha in my life, and acknowledge my debt to Bart Dickinson, for thinking to look out for me.
Thank you for helping make my life so much richer, Bart.
Addendum: Speaking of kindnesses, I’m grateful to Jim Bartlett, who has a post today describing what was happening in the world on January 18, 1995, at his blog The Hits Just Keep On Comin’.
It’s true that I wasn’t nearly the fan of Eddie Money’s music that I was of the Cars. Never owned one of his albums, never bought any Money singles. I didn’t dislike him–he just didn’t consistently break through for me. Nonetheless, I was sorry to learn late last month that he was dealing with advanced esophageal cancer; his death a week ago Saturday wasn’t especially surprising news.
So, yes, my knowledge and appreciation of his craft is fairly limited. But when you say “Eddie Money,” I think of hearing “Gimme Some Water” at an all-day track meet in the spring of 78; of seeing vids for “Shakin'” and “The Big Crash” on MTV in the student center at Transy; of first catching “I Wanna Go Back” on the radio while visiting James in his apartment over the Christmas break after we graduated. He was there, hanging on the periphery–occasionally more central–for about a decade. I’m grateful for the memories, Mr. Mahoney.
“Baby Hold On” and “Two Tickets To Paradise” are both quality songs. I liked “Think I’m in Love” quite a bit in the summer of 82–you’ll see it in my personal Top 10 for 8/21/82 in the recent Charts post (edit: Whoops! It didn’t make the Top 10 until September, eventually getting to #5). Then there’s “Take Me Home Tonight,” which is debuting at #38 here and wound up being his biggest hit, reaching #4. On one hand, incorporating Ronnie Spector and riffing on “Be My Baby” was truly inspired; on the other, after a few dozen listens the inspiration began to acquire somewhat of a novelty feel (and there may have been too much of it, too). And I’ve always thought “I feel a hunger…it’s a hunger!” wasn’t, well, exactly the greatest rock line ever. Balancing it all out, though, I still give the song a thumbs up, maybe even one of his better tunes.
But why isn’t the official video available on YouTube? That I’d love to see again.
There’s no point in me attempting to recap the life and times of Ric Ocasek and the Cars–others have much more knowledge and insight, and whatever I’d say would be redundant besides. Instead, as is my wont, you get snippets of personal experience and random thoughts, plus a list.
–The Cars’ heyday–which I consider to run through their mid-80s Greatest Hits–lined up precisely with my HS and college years, perhaps the sweet spot in the formation and shaping of my musical tastes. I was really big on virtually all the singles from their first five albums (“Touch and Go” was just okay) but didn’t buy any of their LPS until I started going after 12″ vinyl in earnest in 84. Heartbeat City was the only one I ever purchased new, including CDs.
–From day one of my exposure to them, Ocasek was always (and rightly so) presented as the band’s leader. That misled me into thinking for a good while that he was their only vocalist. Other folks have been making the observation that Benjamin Orr’s voice did bear a strong resemblance to Ocasek’s, with which I very much agree. Alas, this may have had the unfortunate side effect of me further minimizing Orr’s contributions initially. So I’ll take a moment to raise up some of those songs from the first three albums that the gone-far-too-early Orr made memorable: “Just What I Needed” and the epic final trio of tunes on The Cars (am I the only one who thinks “All Mixed Up” makes the list of Top 10 Cars Songs?); both singles from Candy-O; and my favorite from Panorama, “Don’t Tell Me No.” I guess the way I figure out who was on vocals now is, if I’m not certain that it’s Ocasek, it has to be Orr.
–Here’s what I’m claiming today are my five fave Cars tunes featuring Ocasek on lead vocals:
#5: “Hello Again” It was well into the summer of 84 before I bought HeartbeatCity. I was blown away by its lead-off track the first time I put needle to record; their signature jerkiness and quirkiness are both dialed up to 10. The Warhol vid doesn’t do all that much for me, but I was glad nonetheless “Hello Again” became a single.
#4: “My Best Friend’s Girl”
Were we just not fully ready for music like this in 78? Peaks of just #27, #35, and #41 for “Just What I Needed,” “My Best Friend’s Girl,” and “Good Times Roll”? Of those three, this is the one with the best (and most classic) song structure and musicianship.
One of a very few 45s I bought after hearing the song just once. Not quite sure how to take Ric portrayed as a Jesus figure–I noted on Twitter the other night that the walking-on-water payoff takes too long to arrive (it’s pretty easy to guess it’s coming, too, though I get why they try to wait until the first chorus for the big reveal). On the other hand, bonus points get awarded for the sounds following the line “How far can you take it?” that make me think of “Spirit in the Sky.”
For the top two, just scenes from one time I heard them.
#2: “Since You’re Gone”
April 82. I’ve jumped in our 81 Chevy Citation to drive to school on a promising spring morning and cranked the engine. On comes WLAP-FM, which I’ve only recently started tuning in regularly. I’m not even out of the driveway when that distinctive intro fires up.
#1: “Dangerous Type”
Mid-July 81. A bunch of us from my church youth group are in Louisville, having just completed the second leg of a three-day, 200+-mile biking excursion around the Erlanger-Lexington-Louisville triangle. Our youth director’s grandmother lives in town and we’re taking her car to Chi-Chi’s for a well-earned dinner to be topped off with fried ice cream. The radio’s quickly switched over WQMF, the local AOR station. We’re on the Watterson, a beltway around the southern edge of the city. Amidst tracks from REO Speedwagon and the Sherbs, on it comes.
–Prior to this, there hadn’t been all that much mention of the Cars or Ocasek here at the blog–“Dangerous Type” was on the mix tape series that kicked things off, “Something To Grab For” made my first Songs Casey Never Played post, a couple of their singles received brief mention other times. This greatly understates the degree to which I appreciated them back in the day. I have strong and fond memories other than those sketched out here, particularly for “Good Times Roll” and “Let’s Go,” but I’ve gone on long enough as it is. They were easily among my five favorite bands for quite a while, and more than deserved their induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year.